MMaybe this will be my Paul Krugman moment. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and the New York Times columnist was the famous winner of a study to establish which op-ed commentator was most consistently correct. In 1998, he also stated that “by about 2005, it will be clear that the impact of the Internet on the economy has not been greater than that of the fax machine.” I’m not as recognized in hits as Krugman. But I make a living by making predictions and predictions. So I could say it right: predict that the metaverse will not pass.
The “metaverse”, for those who do not know, is a virtual world still hypothetical, mostly hypothetical, which is accessed by special virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (RA) technologies. The idea is to create a kind of higher-level Internet superimposed on our physical world. People connected to metaverse exist in our physical world like everyone else, but they can see and interact with things that others cannot. Think of the matrix or the Star Trek Holodeck or the Fortnite–cut Ready Player One branded landscapes.
The concept of metaverse is not new. The phrase was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash, which set in a near future in which the virtual world and the physical world are inextricably interconnected. Silicon Valley tech billionaires seem increasingly convinced that a real metaverse is just on the horizon; the above niche concept has been mentioned in Microsoft and Facebook earnings calls. In a recent interview with The Verge, an enthusiast Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “the successor to the mobile Internet” and as a kind of “embodied Internet, where instead of seeing content you are only there.”
At a time when the discourse of metaverses was heating up, it has been an important year for the cryptographic community. The non-fungible witness (NFT) caught the imagination of the art world this winter. Elon Musk caused – and then appeared – a really wild Bitcoin bubble. Now, neither Zuckerberg nor Bill Gates linked his concept of the metaverse to the cryptographic. But I find it interesting that both the centralizers — technology giants — the power and influence of rival nation-states — and the decentralizers — cryptographic innovators who remain an influential subculture — see the new chapter in technological progress in roughly the same terms: escape from reality. .
It’s important to throw in some cold water by remembering that the concept of virtual reality, which is really what metaverse is, goes back a long way. Virtual reality was popularized by computer scientist and technician Jaron Lanier in the 1980s; his company VPL Research, short for Virtual Programming Languages, was so successful that toy maker Mattel licensed his “DataGlove” device (a kind of wired glove) to create a Nintendo game controller.
Still, more than three decades have passed. Virtual and augmented reality of no kind has just come out. Despite all the talk about Oculus, the virtual reality headset company that Facebook acquired, with much fanfare, in 2014, few of my most tech-savvy friends have boarded the Oculus train. I just found the Oculus VR gear as an abandoned gadget in the starting HQs – a novelty launched unceremoniously alongside the WiFi router. As a technology analyst Benedict Evans recently he tweeted, “My son is about 1000 times more interested in Roblox,” an online gaming platform where users can create their own games for other users to try out, “than by taking my VR headphones out of the closet “Different models for the future.” Virtual reality was the techno-utopian future promised to Generation X. But like Substack writer Paul Skallas recently pointed out: “In 1999/2000, people were telling you that virtual reality was just about to take over. That it would change everything. It’s 2020. Where is it?”
Virtual reality (and later reality) have run into a continuous problem: people especially like reality. People like visual entertainment while there have been screens, while there have been theaters. But, like all entertainment, visual entertainment has its time and place. Remember Google Glass? He had a pair. It was abominable to use it. Who wants email notifications to hide their field of vision all day? My phone is distracting enough. The synthesis of usable technology and augmented reality quickly separated. Augmented reality turned into fun Snapchat filters that make you look like a Pixar character. Portable technology became Apple watches to count steps and alert you if you have a heart attack.
There are two factors that determine whether new technology becomes apparent: capacity and incentives. Not all things technology can do do (capacity), people to want (incentive). Think back to the mid-2000s or watch the 2010 David Fincher classic, The Social Network again. The basics of social media existed long before Zuckerberg created Facebook. In fact, several social networks already existed. Remember Friendster and MySpace? The capacity was there. But what was the incentive? To get people to join your network en masse, Zuckerberg added two ingredients that were missing from previous social media: exclusivity and status.
When it was first launched on Facebook, only those attending a small group of prestigious schools could join. I graduated from high school in 2005 and I’m ashamed to say that Facebook influenced my school choice. Facebook in the early days was additional. It was where you found friends before you got to campus, solidified nascent relationships, shared creepy and embarrassing memories. My question for metaverse drivers is this: what does metaverse add to everyday life?
I have used Oculus glasses before. I found that they had a strange time distortion effect. When I took them out, I felt vaguely tired. Coming out of the pandemic, which has reminded everyone that a Zoom call isn’t much the same as hugging your mom, I’m skeptical that Zoom’s tired workers are interested in leveling up to work on the metaverse, be it the that is to mean. A new Dazed youth survey reports that only 9% of Gen Zers want to stay on social media; fatigue with real-life digital substitutes can be even broader than zoom-tired legions working from home.
Technical oligarchs like Zuckerberg, with their Sauron-like ambition of owning the one ring to rule them all, seem the worst option for taking charge of building a new world. I am more understanding of the nascent interest of the cryptographic community in metaverse. It seems to me, the promise of cryptography is its potential to bring about decentralization in an already overly centralized world, to play Gutenberg in Martin Luthers of the next generation. The metaverse proposes a rationalized and fluid version of our disordered and chaotic world. The issue that seems to be most urgently addressed is: Why should cryptography matter to everyone? If crypto is to be truly revolutionary, it must give an answer that formats digital life on a human scale, not down to that of a megalomaniac.
Sean Monahan is a Los Angeles-based writer and trend forecaster. He co-founded K-Hole, the trending prediction group best known for coining the term normcore. Publish a weekly trending newsletter at 8ball.substack.com